Oil industry challenges rules meant to stop train explosions

FILE - This May 6, 2015 file photo shows a line of oil tanker cars sit on the BNSF railroad tracks in Harvey, N.D.

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — The U.S. oil industry has filed a court challenge to new rules aimed at reducing the risk of catastrophic accidents involving crude moved by rail, following a string of fiery derailments in the recent years.

The American Petroleum Institute petition to the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., would block a requirement for improvements to railroad tank cars that are known to fail during accidents.

API spokesman Brian Straessle said the politically influential trade group supports better tank cars but needs more time to get them on the tracks.

“We definitely support upgrades to the fleet,” Straessle said. “It’s a matter of timing.”

At least 24 oil trains have been involved in major fires or derailments over the past decade in the U.S. and Canada, including a 2013 accident in Quebec that killed 47 people. The latest derailment came last week, when a train carrying crude from the Bakken region derailed and caught fire in central North Dakota, forcing the evacuation of a small town.

The Department of Transportation rules unveiled May 1 call for an estimated 43,000 cars that primarily haul crude to be phased out of retrofitted by 2020. Similar improvements to cars primarily carrying ethanol must be completed by 2023.

The petition filed late Monday also challenges a requirement for more advanced braking systems on fuel-hauling trains. The oil industry contends the brakes are unproven and would be too costly.

The braking rule has drawn similar objections from the rail industry, which is considering its own legal challenge to the rule, said Ed Greenberg, spokesman for Association of American Railroads.

The railroads also have concerns about tank cars, but they are the opposite of the oil industry’s worries. Railroads want the cars to be fitted with “thermal blankets” that wrap around the tank to prevent fires from spreading during a major derailment.

Yet another challenge to the rules could come from environmental groups and safety advocates who say the deadlines set by the Transportation Department are not fast enough.

The Sierra Club and Forest Ethics are among the groups considering a court appeal or an administrative request for transportation officials to reconsider the May 1 rule, said Kristen Boyles, an attorney with the environmental law firm Earthjustice.

Also of concern is a provision in the rules that exempts trains with fewer than 35 tank cars from meeting the tougher construction requirement.

“You could have 34 crude oil cars on a train and none of them would have to meet the news standards,” Boyles said.

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